1. “Report on the Whale Fisheries,” by the Honorary Secretary.
In accordance with the resolution of the Institute on this subject, passed at the first meeting for the year (11th January) the following information has been procured from old whalers, all of whom have had very great experience in whaling matters, during periods of from thirty-three to sixteen years. The Institute is greatly indebted to Mr. Pearson, of Southland, Commissioner of Crown Lands, who took much trouble in personally examining several of the informants. A principal question in the enquiry sought information as to what had caused the great disappearance of the whale from the New Zealand shores during the past few years; whether it was due to its destruction whilst visiting the shores and bays during the breeding season. If this were the fact, whether something could not be done for the encouragement of whaling enterprise by enacting that such an important season should be a strictly
“close” one and during which it would be penal to hunt or destroy the whale. In reply to the first portion of this question, all the informants, with one exception, attribute the disappearance of the whale to the fact of its great destruction during the whaling season. One informant states that he has known, for many years in succession, as many as 300 sail of American, besides many German, French, and colonial vessels, fishing on these coasts. They would commence the bay whaling in all the principal harbours of the Middle Island from Cloudy Bay to Preservation Inlet, and would afterwards repair for the off-shore whaling, to the banks between New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Many of them would sink and lose more whales than they procured; on an average, he would consider that each ship lost about fifty whales per season. One Captain Perkins stated that he had sunk and lost about seventy in the year 1838. He had known many to lose ten or twelve in a day. Another says that by far more whales were lost than taken. A Captain Fisher said that he had killed over 300 in one season, and secured but 100. Many captains spoke similarly of their losses, and anticipated that after a few years whales would become so scarce that it would be useless to come again for a cruise to the New Zealand seas. This wholesale destruction, or slaughter, as it should rather be called, taking place, as it did, in the shores and bays during the calving season, introduced a further element of loss, inasmuch as the cow-whales were then destroyed, either whilst in calf or together with the young calf by their side. When the cows, accompanied by their calves, left for the deeper waters; and when this terminated for the season, the bay, or in-shore whaling as it is called—this wholesale destruction was continued by the off-shore whalers, and amongst them the wasteful loss was as great, if not greater, than before, as in the bay a sinking whale was anchored and buoyed; it would then probably rise to the surface in from forty-eight hours to four days, and would so be recoverable. Sometimes, also, a harpoon-stick, with a small distinguishing flag appended, was driven into the body, by which the captors would recognize their own again upon its resurrection. One only of the informants, Mr. George Green, considers the disappearance to be due to the constant traffic of steamers and various other vessels up and down the coast; and he is borne out in this opinion, to use his own words, “by the fact that what was known as the middle ground—viz., the area between New South Wales and New Zealand, and which was considered one of the best—is now almost deserted by the whale.” Whilst admitting this as a partial cause, I think the view held by the rest is
the true one. There is a great diversity of opinion as to whether a close season would be beneficial or not. The general impression is, that if an Act could be passed prohibiting the killing of whales during their calving season, much would be done towards insuring their increase; it would however, be difficult, if not practically impossible, to enforce such an Act upon foreign whaling vessels, which would prosecute the trade with impunity. The cow-whales breed during the months of May, June, and July, and visit the shores and bays for this purpose solely, though occasionally a solitary whale will visit them during the summer months. At this time they are not accompanied by the bulls. These, however, come in in batches of from five to ten during the latter part of the breeding season—August or September. Soon afterwards all return to the feeding on off-shore grounds, where, as before stated, their destruction is continued by the off-shore whalers. The cows thus remain about four or five months in the breeding grounds. They suckle their calves for not less than twelve months, at the end of which period they are generally in very poor condition, having very little oil in them, and their blubber being like a watery substance, whilst their calves will sometimes contain three or four tuns of oil each. It will be readily seen that more cows than bulls were killed during a successful whaling season, the proportion being about five or six cows to one bull. This disproportion is another source of the gradual disappearance of the species. Such is an epitome of the reliable information the Institute has been able to collect on this subject.